You can hardly walk down a street in the London Borough of Ealing these days without seeing builders at work, on an extension to an existing home or on the demolition of landmark buildings like the Red Lion pub, to make way for blocks of flats. There is money to be made from property in this suburb, which will eventually have Crossrail (“the new high frequency, high capacity railway for London and the South East”) passing through it. The prospect of easy commuter access to the centre of London and beyond has encouraged new developments and boosted the value of homes in the area. This is great news for property owners, especially those who have reached retirement age and are thinking of downsizing or moving somewhere that might better suit their needs as they grow older. It is bad news for their children who are going to find it harder and harder to afford to live in the place they call home.
When we first moved to Greenford in 1991 we had neighbours whose sons and daughters hadn’t moved very far away when they became financially independent, renting rooms in nearby streets. More recently they have been priced out, obliged to settle further afield or remain with their parents as they save up the deposit on a first property. In fact, the parents they leave behind may have to move to smaller homes themselves if they are reliant on housing benefit for the rent since the introduction of the under-occupancy charge (“bedroom tax”), because the British government is no longer prepared to pay for “spare” bedrooms. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of elderly residents I know who still rent their homes. One has lived in the same house since he moved to our street as a child of six in 1939. As the members of that generation find places in care homes or succumb to old age the houses they have occupied are often bought and renovated by those wishing to profit from the lucrative “buy to let” phenomenon. There was a time when those tenants would have made way for families with children but that is no longer the case. I doubt if there are many long term Greenford residents who do not regret the effect this has had on the area.
None of us expected rents to increase as they have, along with the number of people arriving in the London area looking for work. We could not have predicted that the popularity of buying to let would lead to the rise of the HMO (“house in multiple occupancy”) or the physical, demographic and democratic impact that it would have on Greenford. The prevalence of part time, low paid jobs that will never provide the level of income needed to pay to rent anything more than a shared room has meant that a five bedroom house might be occupied by three times that number of tenants, who spill out into local parks for privacy or a beer. To someone like me, fortunate enough to share a home with only one other person, it seems a miserable existence, to be tolerated for a while in order to make money to send home to countries of origin. In recent years, as I’ve walked home in the evenings, I’ve sometimes said “hello” to those smoking a cigarette on the doorstep but more often than not I’ve been ignored. They won’t stay around long enough to become true neighbours so, as far as they’re concerned, the effort isn’t worth it. A transient population cares little about local decision making, the local environment or local people.
Even those living in such circumstances must count themselves lucky compared to the hidden poor who inhabit the outhouses that have sprung up in so many suburban back gardens. Landlords sometimes maximise the amount they can make from a property by constructing a substantial “shed”, often with toilets and running water, that they rent out to even more tenants. “Beds in sheds” have provoked considerable anger from those whose homes are close to these structures, especially as their presence can knock thousands of pounds off their value, but it isn’t just about protecting their investments. Firefighters are often called out to deal with blazes caused by tenants trying to cook inside or heat these unofficial homes and the failure to install proper plumbing can result in the leak of human waste onto neighbouring properties. For an increasing number of exploited people these places are, quite literally, death traps. An outhouse which we were told would be a “home office” now stands two metres from our kitchen window. Neighbours who watched it being built told me that it has a shower and a toilet. It is the second structure of this kind to be built adjacent to our property. The other was being used as accommodation for the drivers of a company that operated from the main house until it was forced out by Ealing Council.
The borough now has a team dealing with “beds in sheds” but so great is the problem that it has a backlog of cases to deal with. We were able to make them aware, even as the structure next to our home was being built, of our concerns but the incident made me wonder if those who these “sheds” have been built to house are the only ones being exploited. As I shouted at the three uninvited workmen I found on our side of the boundary I realised that one of them was translating my angry words for the other two. It is not unknown for economic migrants to be paid far less than the minimum wage they are legally entitled to because they cannot speak English and are unfamiliar with the rules. Anyone prepared to work for less than £6.50 an hour and feel grateful for it must have come from a far worse situation than most Greenford residents can begin to imagine, especially if they are willing to hand over some of their meagre earnings to share poorly insulated and dangerous accommodation in someone’s back garden.
It does not surprise me that some migrant workers have resorted to spending the night in wooded areas and empty buildings in Greenford. In recent years the activities of such squatters have had tragic consequences. Two closed pubs have burned down resulting in one fatality. In another case a man suffering the effects of drug misuse who had also been violently assaulted was left to die by others in a squat in Greenford Road because they did not want to lose access to the property by alerting the emergency services. My heart sank when I saw the house on the news because I had photographed it for my 2012 blog, Greenford 365. The semi-detached house stood out because it was one of the very few left with its 1930s period features still intact, its interior probably untouched since the death of the owner. I remember seeing a man who resembled the victim, Zbigniew Michniewicz, painting the front door. He beamed at me as he smeared white gloss paint onto the oak door, a treatment that had already been applied to the metal framed windows. I hadn’t seen a “For Sale” sign but assumed that he was the new owner and he certainly looked delighted to have a place of his own. At the time it infuriated me that a building that should probably have been given heritage status was being ruined but I find it desperately sad that this man met such a lonely, terrible end in the same place that he had experienced some happiness. The house, which stood empty for years, has now been bought by someone who lost no time in ripping out all the things that made it special and I have no doubt that it will become another HMO.
In the meantime, developers have begun to change the face of Greenford, from large projects such as that proposed for the former GSK site (bounded by the Grand Union Canal, Greenford Road and Oldfield Lane North) to small ones like the house extension at the junction of Locarno Road and Greenford Road. Unless local people make their voices heard the kind of structures that the commentator Simon Jenkins has described as “ghastly slabs” will take the place of factories, pubs and, in the opinion of many Greenford residents, heritage buildings that ought to be saved. An example is the former Starlite Ballroom in Allendale Road, once a venue for great names including the Kinks, Eric Clapton, David Bowie and Pink Floyd. It is now at serious risk of being demolished, in spite of a campaign to turn it into a community space, to make way for thirty-nine flats. The concern at the impact that this development will have is not just that Greenford will lose its last music heritage asset. It is likely to become home to around one hundred and fifty new residents, with all their medical and educational needs, at a time when resources are already overstretched. Queues at local surgeries have become longer and school places have become harder to find. Even the effort to park a car close to home has become more difficult as the tenants of shared properties beat homeowners to a precious space. Add to this the frustration felt because the number of affordable homes that large new developments are supposed to provide can be renegotiated and reduced. With all that in mind you might wonder whose side local councillors are on, especially as they put so much effort into supporting these planning applications. Ealing Council is itself engaged in development at the Allen Court site in Ridding Lane, where private homes will be built on the site of social housing once tenants have transferred to newly built homes from the ageing tower block. It is to be hoped that Greenford can absorb all the new residents (and cars) that this effort at regeneration and improvement will bring.
Those who insist that buildings such as the Starlite must make way for profitable apartment blocks cannot guarantee that these homes will be set aside for those who’ve grown up in the area, rather than foreign nationals with money or ambition. There is even a chance that some of Greenford’s new homes will attract the attention of foreign investors, for whom a flat in a sleepy London suburb is a better investment than gold. Once purchased these properties can remain unoccupied for years. The coach loads of Chinese businessmen who descend upon the Eight Treasures Restaurant in Ealing Broadway may be a sign that our borough is attracting that kind of attention. I doubt if they come all that way just for the food.
Those who protest against new developments are charged with fearing change by local Labour councillor Shital Manro, who is firmly in favour of the Starlite’s destruction. Another Labour councillor, Aysha Raza, has described the Starlite campaign as a vanity project, which suggests that she does not understand what the term means or what the campaign wants to achieve. I have found such a sneering and dismissive attitude to be quite common. Pragmatic to a fault, those who encourage such poorly considered developments are in danger of having vast suburban dormitories as their legacy. They rush to build homes but overlook the less easily identified needs of the communities they are building, failing to provide the opportunities for networking to occur. The places where informal encounters that help to build a resilient, self supporting community can happen, small shops, post offices, pubs and libraries, are disappearing. Instead, we are seeing the creation of a society where the authorities are the first port of call for a resident in need of help, rather than a neighbour who is an unknown quantity. We’re closing our front doors to the world and turning to screens to communicate, isolating even further the old and the poor who cannot access such things. Twenty-three years ago our new neighbours told us to bang on the wall if there was ever an emergency. Today we would be more likely to make a phone call to a complete stranger.
I know that I am not the only one who feels helpless in the face of the juggernaut of unwelcome change in Greenford. I meet local people who wonder why no one cares enough about the place they love to take their beer cans home with them rather than leaving them strewn about open spaces. They wonder why they are less and less likely to be consulted about local developments. They live alongside people who have come to the UK for a better life but are being ripped off by landlords who have no emotional investment in our area. They are governed by councillors who are desperate to meet housing quotas, and are less interested in the views of the people who elected them than they are in those of developers. Increasingly, the opportunities to speak out against unpopular changes, especially those in the built environment, require the user to access the internet, something that the elderly and impoverished cannot understand or afford. Unless those sidelined by “progress” get a chance to express their opinions the relentless tide will sweep them aside, along with any remaining sense of community.
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A post for Blog Action Day 2014.